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Office for Product Safety and Standards — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:31 am on 9th May 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 2:30 pm, 9th May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the role of the Office for Product Safety and Standards.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

The Minister will be familiar with my interest in electrical safety and, in particular, household electrical goods. I am sure he has familiarised himself with all my previous debates and correspondence on the issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and I am keen to hear from him what he will do with some of the serious issues around product safety, and specifically electrical goods. Disappointingly, there has been no parliamentary scrutiny of the functions of the office to date, and I was disappointed that no Minister came to the House to explain what it would be. It was irritating that the Government made the announcement on a weekend; perhaps today we can hear an explanation for that.

The previous Minister, Margot James, came to the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety in December last year, to explain and to listen to the way forward that members of that group wanted. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work as Minister and her willingness to listen to parliamentarians and stakeholders about the changes required to electrical product safety in the UK.

The APPG on home electrical safety is an excellent forum for many parliamentarians and stakeholder attendees to discuss the priority issues concerning electrical safety. Stakeholder attendees include Electrical Safety First, which assists me with the administration of the group, the London fire brigade and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, of which I am a vice-president, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group and others. I would like to think that our combined effort and knowledge have kept these matters high on the parliamentary agenda.

Special mention should also be given to my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who have both worked for a long time to protect people from fires and white good damage in their homes. The APPG’s next meeting is next Tuesday, and I extend an invitation to the Minister to come and listen to a presentation from eBay on what it is doing to prevent counterfeit electrical goods from being sold on its platform—an issue that has got wildly out of control in recent years and, if I am honest, piqued my initial interest in the subject when I held my first debate on this matter in this very room.

I welcome the creation of the office, which is long overdue, and I hope it will help not only to co-ordinate across Government, but to bring together a range of stakeholders to help and advise the office, such as Electrical Safety First, the British Standards Institution, the fire brigades, CTSI and Which?, and many others that are on the frontline of preventing fires caused by faulty products, and that exist to educate the public. The office now needs to reach out to those organisations. I question what it will do to engage stakeholders.

The Minister will be aware that I have previously corresponded with the Department on what I think should be the priority areas. Although I appreciated the Minister’s response, I wonder whether today is an opportunity to share when the strategy will be published and whether electrical product safety will be a priority.

Electricity is one of the biggest causes of fires in our homes, but I see no real Government strategy to help mitigate that risk. Is the office working on a cross-Government strategy? The Home Office has its own “Fire Kills” campaign, but there needs to be a longer, sustained campaign, which Electrical Safety First has been calling for. What is the priority consumer campaign to prevent electrical fires in the home—or where is it? I would like to know what discussions the office is having with the Home Office about fires caused by faulty electrical goods. The Home Office seems to have its own unit, and now the Office for Product Safety and Standards exists, so where is the co-ordination? Can we have some reassurance that there will be joined-up thinking?

I note from the office’s website that one of the first announcements last month was on teaming up with BSI, the UK’s national standards body, to launch the first Government-backed code of practice for product safety recall in the UK. That is a welcome step and is backed by Government, but can the Minister outline whether there will be a Government campaign for consumers on product safety in the strategy? Although initiatives such as “Register my appliance” exist, where is the Government-backed consumer campaign on electrical goods?

There have been significant consumer awareness campaigns from organisations such as Electrical Safety First and the London fire brigade, particularly on plastic-backed fridges, white good fires, counterfeit electrical goods and why recalled goods are openly being sold. The office must get to grips with that issue. From my personal perspective, I do not think it is right that counterfeit electrical goods are sold openly online by the likes of Amazon and eBay. As I have said, the latter will be given an opportunity next week to reassure the APPG meeting, but Amazon has consistently refused to engage and washed its hands of any responsibility, and even though it was invited to next week’s meeting it has declined to respond.

At the last debate, the previous Minister promised a roundtable discussion with Apple, BaByliss, ACG and others to discuss the serious problems they face with counterfeiting and its safety aspects. I keep saying to Ministers that this goes beyond intellectual property; it is about the safety of the public. It is about fire in their homes. It is about the death of my constituent Linda Merron, who bought an electrical product on eBay that burned her house down. It is unacceptable that eBay and Amazon can sell goods that are unsafe and basically get away with it. That would not be allowed on the high street, and the issue will only get worse with the collapse of high street electrical stores such as Maplin, which shows that consumers are increasingly buying online. I want to hear today that the office will tackle those companies that break the law by selling substandard, counterfeit or recalled products.

A closely related problem is the private sales of electrical goods via eBay and Amazon, particularly on Amazon Marketplace. It is my understanding that the Consumer Rights Act 2015 does not cover private sales, so anything faulty could be sold person to person without legal protection. Can the Minister look into that and perhaps write to me about the situation regarding private sales of electrical goods between two individuals, their rights and the consumer legislation? If there is a loophole, I would expect the office to look at it.

It is all very well my calling for greater attacking of the issues and enforcement, but who will enforce this? As the Local Government Association stated in its trading standards review, between 2010 and 2015 there have been cuts of more than 40% to local government, and trading standards has taken the brunt of those cuts. As CTSI has informed me,

“the Office for Product Safety and Standards is a step forwards for consumer protection in the UK. However;
there is still a pressing need to ensure frontline trading standards services have the resources to fulfil their duties to protect the public as was noted by the BEIS Select Committee, Lynn Faulds Wood and the National Audit Office.”

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she has done to identify these serious issues. She mentions trading standards. The National Audit Office has identified the funding gap there, but I think there is another issue. Local trading standards are responsible for businesses in their area. In Peterborough, where Whirlpool is based, the local trading standards office is responsible for the quality of goods for Whirlpool nationwide. There is a conflict of interest and it does not work, because the local trading standards office does not have the resources to police a multinational company such as Whirlpool.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is my understanding that Peterborough actually has fewer than three trading standards officers.

Will the Minister please outline how trading standards will be boosted and supported by this new office? Will there be monies for the training of more trading standards officers? Surely the Government realise that more people are needed on the ground, and now. Will any support for trading standards be backed up with a proper database of injuries that stakeholders can access?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I am not surprised to hear that there are three trading standards officers in Peterborough, who of course have to cover everything that trading standards does. The time spent on electrical safety will be perhaps part of one post. We need to know from the Minister how the new office will actually fill that gap. At the moment, nobody regulates what is happening. It required Which? to start legal action before Whirlpool or the Government responded at all on this.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Like him, I have struggled greatly with Whirlpool. Communicating with the company has been extremely difficult.

The APPG will shortly produce a report on what we believe the Minister and the new office should look at, in terms of electrical safety, based on evidence received from a wide range of organisations. I will invite the Minister to the meeting in July, but he is welcome at any meeting. As we did with his predecessor, perhaps we could have a roundtable discussion—perhaps along with his officials—on these issues, the strategy and our report. I hope the Minister will indicate whether that may be possible.

As I stated earlier, I welcome the new office, but there are concerns about its priorities and strategy and what it will do to protect consumers. Electrical product safety must be a priority area, given the tragic consequences we have seen of white goods fires. I wish the office well, but as I am sure colleagues will raise, more needs to be done to reassure consumers, stakeholders and the electrical products industry that the office will provide the necessary strategic vision, have real power for consumers, support trading standards and be listened to across Government to help to protect the public from electrical product safety problems and fires in their homes.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 2:42 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to Carolyn Harris and congratulate her on securing this important and timely debate.

Product safety standards is a subject on which we should all be focused. It is not so long ago that I wrote a column for my local newspaper, the Stirling Observer, which focused on product safety—especially of tumble dryers. I received an unexpectedly high response to that article compared with others I had written on more current constitutional issues that we might debate in the House and in Scotland.

I also reflect on the first ever surgery I attended as a newly elected Member, in the Mayfield Centre in Stirling. We advertised the event but only two constituents came along to speak to me, so I had some time to speak to the caretaker. He was delighted to speak to his new MP, because he wanted to point out to me an issue that, so far as he was aware, no one was speaking about: the regulation and safety of tumble dryers. Little did I know that, within a few weeks of that, I would be a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and that we would be conducting an inquiry into the safety of tumble dryers.

This is an important subject, as has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Swansea East. Our inquiry found, as can be read in the published report, that companies such as Whirlpool have not made enough of an effort to take responsibility for their products and the consequences of their use when they are deemed dangerous. In fact, the report identified that a million faulty tumble dryers are in everyday use in this country. We also identified in the report gaps in the regulatory regime.

I should mention that, during the hearings that we conducted, Whirlpool made commitments about its willingness to respond to the concerns that we raised. We asked it to resolve issues with defective machines within two weeks. It said that it would do it within a week, but we have no way of measuring whether the company has been true to the commitment that it made and put on the record.

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on our Select Committee in probing Whirlpool and Ian Moverley, who gave evidence—or at least answered a few of our questions, but not all of them. On the 1 million faulty tumble dryers that Whirlpool knows about, is the hon. Gentleman also concerned that Which? said that it had found as recently as last month through its mystery shopping that customers with these faulty tumble dryers were still being given the wrong advice? That means there are potentially still 1 million tumble dryers in our homes that could catch fire, like the ones we in the Committee heard about and the ones other hon. Members have given evidence on.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

I am grateful to the chair of the Select Committee—I have the privilege of serving on it—for her intervention. She is absolutely right, and I share all those concerns—specifically in relation to the Which? report of recent weeks that suggested that Whirlpool customers were being advised that they could continue to use their defective models, even though they were known to be defective and presented a danger to the safety of the people who lived in homes where they were in use.

Similarly, I am also concerned to hear that the BBC and Which? have reported that some of the machines that have had their defects corrected have then caused fires. This is a significant issue and, as I said earlier, is something that should concentrate all our minds—particularly those of Ministers. I am sure that the Minister will wish to address these specific issues in his reply.

Questions need to be asked, and it is vital that the regulatory regime that we have meets the need that we currently place on it. As we take more products into our lives and rely more on technology, the more we need a regulator with teeth. The new Office for Product Safety and Standards is a promising development, but it will need to be tested against reality—the lawyers and the corporate spin machines that defend the spin cycles of the manufacturers.

I should at this point deviate to tell the House that I had a most interesting experience in the last few minutes while visiting a constituent of mine who is here in Parliament. She is at a drop-in event in Portcullis House sponsored by Genetic Alliance UK, which is a charity that works to improve the lives of patients and carers. I told her that I was coming to Westminster Hall to participate in a debate on tumble dryers—that is how I expressed it, even though the debate is broader—and she volunteered that her tumble dryer had been faulty. It was a different make from the one I have discussed. She returned the machine and was offered £100 and a new machine, but that machine was faulty. This product seems to have endemic issues.

I hope Members will forgive me if I dwell a little more on an issue that has bothered me a great deal since being elected: the apparent ineffectiveness of regulators. For example, Ofgem constantly failed to take on the electricity markets, which were obviously broken, and I have found Ofcom to be generally unresponsive to the wireless telephony and broadband connectivity issues of my rural constituents. The list goes on. The debate is not about that, but I am concerned that the new office could be another ineffectual regulator—toothless, ineffective, and sometimes even, sad to say, supine—instead of a body that the Government, and us as parliamentarians, have put good faith in to defend the best interests of people.

In some cases, regulators fail not because they do not have enough power but because they lack the will and suffer from organisational atrophy that causes inaction. The regulator in this field, the OPSS, must not fail. If it does, there is the possibility of lives being lost—actually, that is beyond a possibility; it is a fact—consumers being ripped off with faulty goods, and untold damage being done to property.

The situation regarding Whirlpool, which I have already mentioned, is one in which our Select Committee expected action on the part of the company. To our knowledge, that has not been forthcoming. Its actions have been inadequate. Instead of responding to the concerns that we raised with it and those of my constituents and others who have raised issues with me that I have passed on, it has resisted action and, in my view, done the bare minimum that it can get away with. An activist regulator would put paid to the inaction, and a test of the ability of the new regulator will be how it pursues this. It is essential that when questions are raised about products, companies act transparently. That is what we would expect, and what we would expect a regulator to insist on.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. I was remiss in not saying anything at the start. This is a heavily subscribed debate, so to be fair to one another, colleagues should take about five minutes at the most, before the winding-up speeches start.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 2:51 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David, for two reasons. One is that you are a fellow West Ham supporter. They have survived in the premiership for another year, so you will obviously be in a good mood. Secondly, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety rescue, you take a keen interest in these matters yourself, so it is good to see you here and following the debate as closely as you are.

It is a pleasure to follow Stephen Kerr. He made another of his trademark thoughtful speeches, which he is becoming known for. I am delighted to welcome the Minister to his position. He arrives with a fair wind. He is held in regard across the House and much is expected of him, so we are all looking forward to his response to this debate, which will be my first experience of his winding up.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing the debate and on not taking undue time in opening the debate, as some colleagues in these debates do. She has left lots of time for the rest of us to contribute. I also congratulate her on so ably chairing the all-party parliamentary home electrical safety group and leading us on this issue so effectively. She has been so well supported by our hon. Friend Andy Slaughter on these issues. I will try to keep to your time constraints, Sir David.

I thank Electrical Safety First, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Which? and the London fire brigade for all their efforts in this area and for their briefings. Like the previous two speakers, I look forward to the Minister’s response, as well as the Opposition speeches. The tone of the briefings that I have received is best described as positive and welcoming but with a sceptical edge, and I think that the simplest thing I can do is to quote from the material with which I have been supplied.

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute asked two main questions. How would the OPSS add to the current market surveillance and enforcement functions to improve the system and, if there was a repeat of the recent white goods scandal, how would the office support local authority trading standards to ensure that the system was robust in protecting consumers? I am sure that the Minister has all these briefings and will be well prepared to respond to them.

The first two points made by Electrical Safety First in its briefing are that the charity welcomes the debate and the newly established Office for Product Safety and Standards, as it represents a key opportunity. It says that

“the OPSS is fundamental to creating better cross-government co-ordination”.

Then it asks a number of questions. On product recall, it states:

“Through collaboration with stakeholders there must also be significant effort to improve product registration”.

With regard to online retail, it says that

“consideration should be given to bringing forward additional legislation”.

On counterfeit electrical goods, it says:

“This issue must be looked at closely”.

On data collection, it says that

“product safety in the UK is fragmented and incomplete.”

And it says that an injury database is

“Key to an effective intelligence system”.

That is hardly a ringing endorsement, but Electrical Safety First is more upbeat than Which? is.

Which? is probably the most sceptical. It states:

“Which? welcomed the Government’s recognition that the product safety system needs to be fixed. However, the announcement of the OPSS falls short of the full overhaul the product safety system so desperately needs…Which? is calling for fundamental reform that stops unsafe products from reaching UK households.”

It reminds us of the history, as referred to by my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves. I am talking about the Peterborough trading standards challenge, which was brought about only because of the London Fire Brigade report and because Which? basically took legal action to make Peterborough trading standards challenge Whirlpool.

The London Fire Brigade, in its briefing, is also welcoming, but asks questions. On progress and powers of the new office, it asks:

“Could the Minister give further detail on what measures will be in place to ensure the Office has technical expertise and the resources to support…Trading Standards…will the OPSS also consider criminal prosecution if a manufacturer of white goods lets consumers continue to use a known dangerous product?...will the new Office encourage and facilitate information sharing by manufacturers and insurers following fires so that fire and rescue services and trading standards are in possession of key data”.

It asks:

“Could the Minister give an update on what progress has been made on the recall register?...Could the Minister confirm that there will be an obligation on manufacturers to inform government of all recalls…what will be done to communicate the new register to consumers”.

Much is expected of the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, and certainly the fanfare from Government is that this is a positive step forward. It should be and very well could be. I look forward to the winding-up speeches from the Opposition spokespersons, but this is, more importantly, an opportunity for the Minister to explain how the new office will help and what he expects it to achieve. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have contributed.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:56 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will not repeat what my hon. Friend said, except to say that we are all grateful for the expertise and support that we get in trying to deal with these issues, for your involvement over time and for the Select Committee’s involvement now.

It is probably right to say that the announcement of the new office was rather subdued. I think that it came at a weekend; we were all expecting an oral statement or at least some explanation of its role, but we have had to wait really till today to address that matter. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris for initiating the debate and for her expertise on the matter.

We know what needs to be done. We had the Lynn Faulds Wood report two years ago. We had the Government’s own working party report. We have had much expert advice, including from the London fire brigade, Which? and Electrical Safety First. The difficulty is that not much is happening. There is a fear—if I can be blunt with the Minister —that this is really window dressing; it is simply a way of being seen to do something. We are told that it is a new office and has additional funding—£12 million. Can the Minister confirm, first, that that is additional money? Secondly, I think that that is when it is fully operational. When will the office be fully operational in that way? Its remit appears to be quite limited. It appears to be mainly the same people doing the job, and it appears to have the same limitations because of the reliance, still, on the local network of underfunded trading standards organisations.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Perhaps I can put the hon. Gentleman’s mind at rest. I can confirm that we are talking about £12 million of additional resources for the Office for Product Safety and Standards. In this first year, we envisage there being an additional spend of approximately £9 million; that is as it staffs up and gets itself ready. But there will be £12 million of new money, in addition to the work that the officials have already been doing within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I am grateful for that answer. Perhaps, because of the limited time, I will limit myself to making one point. Will the new office pass the Whirlpool test? Whirlpool is untypical in some ways, because one particular design fault has affected 5.5 million tumble dryers; I think it was estimated that one in six homes in the country is affected. That is not the only problem with Whirlpool. We have also had the issue that led to the Llanrwst inquest and the sad, tragic deaths there. The Whirlpool reaction has been extraordinarily unhelpful. If the office can deal with Whirlpool, it can probably deal with a number of other issues.

I remind members that over 12 years a number of different brands manufactured tumble dryers that were liable to catch fire and did in many hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. The concentration was initially on the slow speed at which they were repaired or replaced and then the fact that half of them were not identified at all. That threw up the lack of a registration or recall process. Whirlpool persistently resisted a recall or even giving the correct safety advice. That is bad enough, but through Which? and the BBC’s “Watchdog” programme—which has done an incredible job in exposing this negligent behaviour by Whirlpool and is now being broadcast weekly—we have discovered that that was not the only problem.

The replacement and repaired machines were themselves faulty and large numbers of them are now catching fire. We could well be back where we were, except for the fact that people have been lulled into a false sense of security in the belief that they now have safe goods in their home when they often do not. How does the Minister intend to approach the Whirlpool issue and learn from it? Will we have a proper registration process? Will we have a clear database of products that are at risk and are recalled? Will we insist on recall, rather than this rather botchy repair method? Will that be within the remit of the new office?

Finally, we are coming up to the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which we are dealing with on a daily basis. It was started by a particular type of fridge freezer. If the Minister cannot answer this question now, I would be grateful if he would write to me. I have had contradictory answers from his Department and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. When will we get a verdict on that? Is it coming through the police inquiry or his Department? When will we know exactly which fault caused that fire? We know it is in a particular model of fridge freezer, but we need to know more, because if there is a further risk, it needs to be demonstrated and publicised.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:02 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter who has done so much work on this issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this debate.

Like everyone, I welcome the establishment of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, but it needs a role for consumers as well as businesses. Consumers need to be front and centre in this. I will not go into the Whirlpool affair, which has been dealt with, although I hope lessons will be learned from that. I would like to know, however, what support will be given to trading standards. We have heard about the Peterborough problem. Will there be a centralised team under the national trading standards remit on product safety? That seems like a good way of working.

I want to concentrate on the recall register. How will consumers know about it? If I had time, I would do a little test and ask people if they could tell me the model number of their fridge, freezer and washing machine—apart from the make—because I could not. Where are these numbers? Usually they are at the back of machines in completely inaccessible places. If there are fitted units, the whole cupboard has to be taken apart to get to the model number. What is the point of publishing a register of model numbers that most people do not have a clue that they own? How will we get around that one?

What about people who are not on the internet? How will they know about a recall? Surely, the way to do it would be through a register at the point of sale that would only be used in the case of a recall. It should be given to the manufacturer with strict instructions that there is to be no marketing or contact unless there is a recall. If the machine is sold on, online traders who deal with it, such as eBay, Amazon, Gumtree and Shpock, could also register who it is sold on to. That would get around the fact that we cannot get to second-hand goods or the people who sell them. We know that few people fill out registration cards, because they are frightened of getting marketing calls all the time.

It is illegal to sell second-hand and fake goods subject to recall in the US. I do not see why we cannot have some form of legislation on that here. We need to tighten up the online platforms. I do not want to stop the sale of second-hand goods. I do not want people to be forced to go to BrightHouse—heaven forbid—as the only place they can buy these goods, but they have to be safe. The online platforms must be made responsible for the goods. They are not simply equivalent to landlords who let a shop that sells goods. They are considered to be the same as the sellers. People who buy from Amazon Marketplace consider that they are buying from Amazon and are covered by that. That applies to fake goods as well. They are equally responsible for the sale of fake goods, which all too often cause fires. Fake chargers, fake hair straighteners and all the fake goods sold on such websites are the responsibility—I would say—of the people who provide the platform for the sellers. The minimum they should do on recall is highlight that there is a recall. When it comes up and somebody is looking at white goods, a warning should flash: “These products have been recalled.”

Finally, will we still be in the European rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products, or Rapex, system after this? It is important we co-operate with Europe, as many of the goods are European.

I welcome the establishment of an office dedicated to product safety, but the devil will be in the detail. When will it publish its action plan? When will it publish its priorities? Will there be a timeline for these priorities? Will consumers be at the front, centre and heart of this office?

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle 3:06 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue and to speak in this exceptionally important debate, secured by my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris.

As we have seen on too many occasions in the last few years, product safety can be the difference between life and death. According to the consumer magazine Which?, faulty goods can cause as many as 3,120 fires a year. That is 60 fires a week or one fire every three hours. Since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, Britain has led the world in workplace and consumer safety. High standards have ensured that we can to live and work safely without risk of death or injury in our daily lives. British safety has been a global success story, with our standards adopted across the middle east, Asia and the Commonwealth. It is right, therefore, that we welcome the introduction of the Office for Product Safety and Standards as the next step in ensuring that product safety in the UK remains world class, that it is placed right at the heart of the economy and that we avoid any sense of a race to the bottom on regulatory standards.

To do that effectively, as well as all the actions mentioned by my hon. Friends, the Government need to take a couple of extra actions as well. The Office for Product Safety and Standards must be properly financed, resourced and staffed. I welcome the £12 million that the Minister has already mentioned. The motto at the heart of the office must simply be that safety cannot be done on the cheap. The Government must provide the resources to allow it to attract the talent that it needs in order to be effective in maintaining and reinforcing the high-quality regulation that exists for consumers.

The points raised by all my hon. Friends are absolutely crucial in dealing with these problems with white goods and electrical safety. Having a new office gives us an opportunity to expand its remit and include workplace safety items as well. A company called Arco, based in my constituency of Hull, supplies health and safety equipment and services. It tells me that it has seen worryingly levels of non-compliance in a wide range of workplace safety items, including things such as high-vis jackets and non-steel toecap boots. It has carried out some tests on some of these products in a laboratory in Hull. It has revealed that up to 50% of boots containing steel midsole protection on the consumer market are actually made from brittle or mild steel, which is subject to corrosion. Many of these products have passed the CE branding procedure at the test stage, but they simply do not protect employers or consumers to an adequate standard.

We all know that protective equipment is often the last line of defence for consumers and workers against serious injury or fatality, so I think the Office for Product Safety and Standards should expand its remit to reflect this urgency. The Government should also act to give a new legislative footing to products and workplace safety that is fit to meet the evolving challenges of product safety, reflects the concerns of the industry, and gives the office real teeth to make it really effective. Product safety and standards are one area that all of us, regardless of party, can get behind. We all want to see consumers protected and safety promoted. I hope that the new Office for Product Safety and Standards can be a resounding success, which it will be if the Government follow all of the recommendations mentioned in the debate.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 3:09 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this debate on the new Office for Product Safety and Standards and on the powerful case she has set out.

The Minister may know that my interest in these issues stems from my constituency’s historical links to white goods manufacturing. I am very proud of our legacy. Hoover washing machines, dishwashers and even the Sinclair C5 were all made in my constituency. Secondly, I am a member of the all-party group on home electrical safety, chaired by my hon. Friend. I want to focus my brief remarks on three issues—communications with the public, old white goods and elderly electrical products being sold online, and support for trading standards in Wales.

I have seen the briefing from Electrical Safety First that was distributed to hon. Members before this debate, and I am grateful for it. I welcome, as other Members have, the creation of the OPSS. I see it as protecting consumers from electrical hazards, particularly fires caused by white goods. As Electrical Safety First states in its briefing,

“there needs to be expansion of government campaigns on electrical safety in the home throughout the year.”

I very much agree with that statement when I look at the fires caused by white goods in homes and those who are affected.

Some 1,719 fires in Wales were caused by an electrical source of ignition last year. In the past three years, according to the South Wales fire service, 43 fires were caused by tumble dryers and washing machines, with over 55% of those instances attributed to Hotpoint, Indesit or Creda machines. Seven of those 43 were in my constituency. Will the Government consider a consumer campaign on fires caused by white goods targeted at vulnerable families who might buy cheaper white goods online and in marketplaces, some of which may be recalled or second hand, with unsuspecting consumers not even being aware of their recalled status?

Many people used to buy products specifically manufactured in the UK, stamped “made in the UK” or “made in Great Britain”, because they were often seen as a trusted product. As I have mentioned in previous debates in the House, many manufacturers, including Hoover, decided to send production overseas and now import electrical goods into the UK. We need to look closely at online platforms such as eBay, Amazon, Gumtree and Facebook that allow, without any regulation or enforcement, second-hand and in particular very elderly electrical products to be sold, as my hon. Friend the Member outlined. What will the new office do with the online platforms that allow the sales of very elderly electrical goods to the public? Is it right that old electric heaters and washing machines from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s should be allowed to be sold to the public via sites such as eBay as safe to use? I do not believe that should be allowed. Furthermore, manufacturers should take action to prevent their very elderly products from being sold online and work with the likes of eBay, Amazon and so on. What plans are there to look at second-hand electrical goods sales by the new office?

Second-hand goods and recalled products being sold online or in marketplaces need proper enforcement. Information from the Welsh Local Government Association shows that owing to austerity and the pressures placed on local councils, regulation activities were cut by 47% in the past five years, which includes trading standards responsibilities. As the WLGA suggests, there is a loss of expertise and ability to enforce electrical product safety, particularly in the most vulnerable communities, which is potentially where the cheapest electrical goods would be bought and sold. Will the Minister agree with me that the new office—this also addresses the concerns raised by my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves—needs to support local trading standards on the ground to ensure proper market surveillance of the sales of electrical goods in the community? I refer not only to old products, but to new, particularly dodgy mobile phone chargers and e-cigarettes, which the WLGA says that trading standards departments get the most complaints about.

I hope that the Minister will look closely at those issues and ensure that the new office works for the most vulnerable consumers who need to be protected from dangerous electrical goods in their communities. I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister on what has been done and what further he can do to address the issues and offer reassurances.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn 3:14 pm, 9th May 2018

I thank my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris for securing this important debate. I congratulate her on raising this important issue that matters to so many of us and our constituents. Also, a bit cheekily, I take this opportunity to congratulate her on her recent election as deputy leader, although I am not sure whether that is allowed.

The move to establish a new Office for Product Safety and Standards is welcome, but I will echo a few of the things that my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue has said about how there will be only limited improvement should the Government fail to establish an effective product register site for all UK recalled products.

I am part of a group of mothers in my constituency who often talk about how we keep our babies, toddlers and newborns safe. We are usually awash with information about the best nappies to use, whether to use formula or to breastfeed, and which car seat should be used, but one of the things that we struggle with is finding out which products that we use for our newborns should be recalled: for example, tumble dryers, which most of us use; baby monitors, which are often fitted to the cots that children sleep in or are at least in their rooms; or bottle or milk warmers that in the past have been recalled, which we do not have much information about.

If we want to find out information about those products, we have to go through individual websites to try to find out which one is faulty and which one we should use, at the same time as trying to look after our young children, which is not the easiest of things to do. We found out that the communication from manufacturers about faulty products is simply not good enough. In a consumer survey carried out by Electrical Safety First, only 21% of people said that they had ever responded to a product recall, and 47% had never even seen a recall notice. That is certainly the experience that I have had, along with the constituents that I am speaking about.

Manufacturers often fail to be clear about what dangers their product poses. If they said more clearly what accidents, deaths and fires were linked to the product that they have recalled, more people would act on the recall notice. In fact, in a survey, 77% of consumers said that if they knew what was exactly wrong with the product that they were using and what dangers it could pose to them and their families, they would be more likely to take the product recall notice seriously.

It is shameful that recall success rates are rarely more than 10% or 20%. If we sincerely want recalls to be successful where necessary, we should not leave it up to consumers to hunt through thousands of websites to find out information. It is not reasonable to expect new parents who are already dealing with newborn children to check every website of every manufacturer from whom they have ever bought a product. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield talked about how many people actually know the product’s serial number or what is on the back of every product that they have bought: what make it was or in what year it was bought. It is simply not possible for consumers to have such information at their fingertips.

We must make sure that consumers are equipped with information about the products they have bought to ensure that they can keep themselves and their families safe. Will the Minister agree that it is vital that the OPSS outline the detail behind its commitment to establish a single national database for UK product recalls? In particular, we need to know what resources and funding the OPSS will have to publicise the site’s existence. After all, we know that public awareness is key to successful product recall.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:18 pm, 9th May 2018

As always, it is a pleasure to speak in a Westminster Hall debate, Sir David. I congratulate Carolyn Harris, who always speaks with a real passion and belief in what she says. I commend her for that. I always look forward to debates that she is involved in. It is because of her that we have this debate and are able to speak in it, so I thank her for that. I also thank all the hon. Members who have made contributions and the Front-Bench spokespersons for the Scottish National party and for the Labour party who will speak later. I believe their contributions will be significant as well. I am sure that the Minister, who is taking notes, will take on board Members’ questions and concerns, and I hope that we can obtain some reassurance from him as to how things stand.

I received a briefing from Electrical Safety First, a charity dedicated to reducing the number of deaths, injuries and fires from domestic electrical accidents, and I commend it and fully support it. We should note its recommendations, and the hard work that the charity does. Over the years I have debated this topic, including in Adjournment debates in the main Chamber with Andy Slaughter, among others, and it keeps coming back. That is because there seem to be continual problems with electrical safety. Electricity causes more than 20,000 house fires a year; that is almost half of all accidental house fires. Every year in the UK, around 350,000 people are injured through contact with electricity and 70 people are killed.

An example, if anyone needs a reminder, of what electricity can do when it goes wrong, is the Whirlpool case. I spoke in the debate on that matter obtained by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. I remember the debate well, and the issue even better. Afterwards I learned from one of my constituents who had such a dryer that she had been told to stay in and watch the dryer when it was in use. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard that. It is an unusual and strange thing to say: “Don’t watch TV; watch your dryer.”

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. What alerted me to the issue in the first place was a serious tower block fire in Shepherd’s Bush, two years ago, when the victim was watching—she was in the same room as the fire and did everything right, including unplugging it. It still completely destroyed her flat, and Whirlpool would still not change their advice about using the machines, until they were threatened with legal action.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman has been a warrior on these issues and speaks well about them, and what he said illustrates the point. “Watch your dryer”—my goodness, watch it as it burns and the house catches fire. It will be too late then, but that is by the way.

I thought that what was happening was not the way to handle an electrical safety unit, and I am pleased about the setting up of the Office for Product Safety and Standards. There has been no long-term strategy to tackle fires caused by electricity in people’s homes. At present, only the Electrical Fire Safety Week held in November each year—we all go along—exists to provide a concentration of communication to the public from Government. Communication campaigns such as the Home Office’s “Fire Kills” campaign have been under Government review for some time. Perhaps the review is coming to an end; I hope so.

Electrical Safety First believes that Government campaigns on electrical fires must be expanded. There should be more advertising, probably on television, and through councils, and more safety measures should be taken. An average success rate of 20% of products being recovered or repaired means that millions of potentially dangerous products remain in people’s homes. We may not know it but we might have such things in our own homes. Gerald Jones mentioned phone chargers, and it is an important point: teenagers laugh if their phone charger, or even earphones, catch fire, but those incidents are not reported. Teenagers do not know where to report them, or who to contact. It is easier to buy a new one, which is probably what they do. They discard the old one, without considering why the fire happened. We must realise that someone who falls asleep with their earphones on may not find it so funny. It is definitely not a funny matter.

Clearly, consumers need confidence that the Government are taking appropriate action to protect them, particularly given that five fires a day are caused in the UK by white goods alone, and in view of the dangers posed by counterfeit electrical goods. In her opening remarks the hon. Member for Swansea East made many good points, but the one I want to reiterate is the rise in the number of people buying online. It continues to be a problem, and it is frustrating because the attraction is price, and customers do not see the safety issue. Is the safety perfect? No, it is not. Is there a safety-conscious attitude? No—or rather, as that is not fair, not in every case.

A big issue, which must be addressed, is the need to look at authenticity and proof of origin. I completely agree that an action plan must be developed, and backed up with an enforcement operation strategy to target the growing problems. Consumers are being put at risk by inaccurate and misleading advertising of electrical goods, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Products claimed to be genuine often contain counterfeit or substandard components. They might look good, but that does not always mean that they are. That has a significant impact on consumer safety, creating a culture of acceptability in selling counterfeit electrical goods online. It undermines legitimate UK business—those who are doing it right. What does the Minister think can be done further to address that issue?

We live in a technologically driven world that is over-reliant on technology. We depend on such things in our lives. We test-drive cars and research the safety of vehicles in crashes, but we do not do the same for electrical goods that we use in our homes. We must, through the new office and today’s debate, send the message that it is important for people to safety check everything in their homes, and that they can have recourse to a way to report defective goods. That must be done not simply to complain—that is not what it is about—but for the safety of others in the future. That is the motivation of every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate. We look to the Minister, as we always do, for a satisfactory response.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Order. I commend colleagues on their excellent timekeeping, which is an example to others and has resulted in plenty of time being left for the Opposition spokesmen and, particularly, for the Minister.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:27 pm, 9th May 2018

I am pleased to take part in a debate with so much consensus, which does not happen often. I thank Carolyn Harris who has done a power of work on the issue and continues to champion the cause, as we all recognise. I thank the consumer organisation Which? for providing an excellent briefing, as has Electrical Safety First.

The Office for Product Safety and Standards is welcome, of course, as we have heard from a number of Members. As Jim Fitzpatrick pointed out, it is important as a way of strengthening our product safety regime and making sure that customers are aware of and, importantly, can have confidence in the availability of an effective system, should products need repair or replacement. However, caution is required about the impact. In its report the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee regretted the Government’s limited response, and the lack of urgency about acting on recommendations to address product safety issues. It found that reductions in funding for local trading standards and national trading bodies were having the negative effect that might be expected on the adequacy of the existing product safety system.

That finding, combined with the fragmentation of the current system, makes it difficult for consumers to have confidence in the consistent enforcement of the required standards across the UK. We have heard today of responses from the manufacturer Whirlpool to a defect in its tumble dryers, which clearly show the limitations of the existing system. Indeed, as a direct result of its slow response, 1 million homes still contain potentially dangerous appliances, as set out by the hon. Members for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who explained the dangers that have dogged consumers who have those machines and has, of course, been a champion in the area in question.

There is no doubt that progress in improving the safety of electrical goods has been too slow. I suspect that the Minister would probably agree with that, in his quieter moments. That is despite a widely supported set of recommendations, made in Lynn Faulds Wood’s independent review, published two years ago. That review, which had a national product safety agency as its central recommendation, concluded that that was needed as part of a long-overdue overhaul of the entire system. All hon. Members welcome the new Office for Product Safety and Standards, but as we have heard, it must have sufficient scope and resources to deal with issues of product safety across the UK.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

Despite what I am about to say, I do not wish to introduce a tone of discord, but I was distressed last week when, in the Scottish Parliament, our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, answered a question from Miles Briggs MSP regarding genuine concerns about the safety of babies being permitted to sleep in baby boxes. The response he received did not indicate to me that the First Minister shares any kind of genuine feeling for the fact that people are sincerely concerned about product safety and baby boxes.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

That question is a bit leftfield, but I am happy to take it head on.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

It is about product safety.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman googles the Scottish Cot Death Trust, he will find that it has no concerns about baby boxes. However, if cardboard is set alight it does catch fire—there is a revelation for the hon. Gentleman—and the trick is not to light matches around cardboard. That is probably the safest thing for a baby.

As I was saying, the Office for Product Safety and Standards must be given sufficient scope and resources to deal with issues of product safety. It must be independent and have real teeth to protect consumers and prevent dangerous products from doing them harm. The Minister will be interested to hear that the consumer organisation Which? has expressed concern and disappointment that the full overhaul and fundamental reform needed to stop unsafe goods from reaching or remaining in our homes does not appear to be on the table. Disappointingly, it seems that the new office has not engaged with consumer organisations such as Which?, which I am sure the Minister would agree has some standing and calibre. I wonder why that is, and how consumers would view that lack of engagement. What does it mean when an organisation of such status cannot get the new office to engage with it? Perhaps that is something the Minister could unblock.

It seems a missed opportunity that the Office for Product Safety and Standards will apparently not address the systematic weaknesses in the existing enforcement framework, as set out by Which?, and it seems that no action is planned for the new office—Which? has expended considerable effort in trying to elicit such an action plan, but without success. This matter is fairly straightforward because we know about the ongoing failures in the product safety system, and recent product safety issues have brought into even greater focus questions about the adequacy of the current regulatory and enforcement system in the UK. There are concerns about a lack of effective co-ordination and direction in the new office, and if local authorities have no regulatory enforcement staffing resource, that might be a big problem. We know how under pressure trading standards officers are locally, and their role is extremely important for safety in our community.

The OPSS must also consider product recall as part of its strategy—as the hon. Members for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) pointed out, product recall has an average success rate of only 20%, and potentially, millions of unsafe products remain in unsuspecting homes. It must also consider online retail, as that must be held to the legal standards that apply to other forms of retail shopping and product safety—that point was also raised by the hon. Members for Makerfield and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

Counterfeit goods are a huge problem, and we need a way forward to counter that issue. As the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn pointed out, data collection and sharing for product safety is fragmented and incomplete, and we need a true picture of the scale of the problem of unsafe goods. An injury database could be used to help collect intelligence and quickly identify dangerous products, and that would be a positive step forward.

We have the opportunity to address current weaknesses in the system and make sure that it is fit for purpose in the potentially more diverse trading environment that the UK will be part of in years to come—that point was set out by Emma Hardy. We have the opportunity to introduce a new national independent regime for product safety to ensure effective enforcement, market surveillance, and appropriate standards for goods. As Jim Shannon reminded us, getting product safety wrong will, and indeed has, cost lives.

The post-Brexit world raises challenges, and we cannot have a situation where the UK diverges significantly from the rest of the EU, as that would only be to the detriment of consumers—I hope the Minister will reassure us on that point. We all agree that the new office is welcome, but we are concerned to ensure that it has the power, resource and strategic direction to help it achieve what we want, which is a safe environment for our consumers who buy products in good faith and have a right to expect that they are safe.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Steel, Postal Affairs and Consumer Protection) 3:35 pm, 9th May 2018

It is, yet again, a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir David, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris on securing this important and extremely topical debate. I also thank the all-party group on home electrical safety, Which?, Electrical Safety First, and the BBC’s “Watchdog”—I apologise to anyone who I may have missed, because many people are interested in this issue.

The safety and security of their citizens must be the No. 1 priority for all Governments, but in recent years we have witnessed a series of fires that have haunted the nation. The Grenfell tragedy is suspected to have been caused by a faulty fridge freezer, although, as several hon. Members have said, we are still waiting for the independent inquiry to verify that. My hon. Friend Angela Rayner has raised with Ministers the tragic case of the Wilson family in her constituency. John Wilson was killed, and his wife and daughter seriously injured, in a house fire and explosion caused by a faulty fridge freezer. The model in question was known to be a fire hazard and was subject to a product safety notice. However, the family had not been informed, and the coroner found that the manufacturer had not taken sufficient steps to warn customers. Those are just some of the tragic stories.

After years of reviews and consultations, in January the Government finally announced the creation of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, a new body that will

“enhance protection for consumers and the environment”.

Given its name, I was somewhat surprised when I checked its website and found that “product safety” featured at the end of its list of priorities. Indeed, when scrolling through OPSS’s social media account, there is little mention of the steps that it is taking to enhance product safety, or how it is tackling current product safety issues. I am therefore delighted to join other Members in seeking clarification from the Minister about what the scope and nature of the OPSS will be.

That the product safety regime is out of date and not fit for purpose has been evident for some time. As my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said, only a couple of weeks ago after a widespread investigation by Which?, it was revealed that, further to previous investigations, companies such as Whirlpool are

“failing to give full and appropriate safety advice when contacted about fire-risk tumble dryer models”.

That is a clear breach of Whirlpool’s legal obligations under the safety notice and could mean that it is breaking product safety law.

That investigation is part of an ongoing two-year campaign that calls for a full recall of those unsafe products. The fact that the matter has not yet been properly resolved represents an abdication of the manufacturers’ and the Government’s duties to consumers. The OPSS presents an initial opportunity to ensure that that is dealt with, but despite the Minister’s promise to get to work right away, there has been no response. I understand that the body is still new, but if that reflects how it will operate in future, that is disappointing and a far cry from what consumers need to protect themselves against faulty goods. Shockingly, 1 million Whirlpool tumble dryers subject to a safety notice are still in the homes of consumers, and I fear it is only a matter of time before the next tragedy.

I have some pressing questions for the Minister. Is the OPSS looking into the claims made by the Which? investigation, and, if so, what steps is it taking to respond to that urgent investigation? Will the Minister set out clearly the process through which this body will deal with any future investigations? I am pleased that the Government are soon expected to launch their strategy for the OPSS—my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith strongly expressed his views on that. Will the Minister confirm the timeline for the publication of the strategy and outline its key priorities?

Given the shambles around the product recall system, I urge the Minister to ensure that part of the OPSS’s remit is playing a key role in dealing with product recalls swiftly. More broadly, the strategy must also address how the body will work with local authorities on the ground. Since 2010, they have suffered severe cuts, as the Government’s consumer Green Paper admits. On page 57, it says:

“the capacity of Local Authorities to take national cases has reduced. Two-thirds of English local authorities have reported not having the expertise to cover fully the range of statutory duties required of trading standards teams. For example, only half of authorities now have specialist skills in e-crime, a national priority area.”

The Government openly admit that they are letting consumers down.

Undoubtedly, the lack of resources has left trade bodies bereft of the crucial expertise they require to deal with such cases, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue. The Government’s strategy should set out how they will close the gap in the enforcement mechanisms, so that trading bodies are sufficiently supported to enforce consumer law.

I understand that work has already begun on a database of unsafe products, to which my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick eloquently drew attention. However, there is little detail about it. How are the Government conducting the database? Will we be able to see which goods have been recalled? Who will have access to the data? How will third parties be able to access the data in a responsible manner? I hope the Minister will answer those questions in his response. Furthermore, the database needs to be in place by 29 March 2019 in preparation for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Can the Minister guarantee that it will be in place by then?

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Gerald Jones, raised the issue of second-hand goods and online purchases. How will the Government address that important issue?

The OPSS is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough in addressing the fundamental issue of the product safety regime. Clearly, the current policy is out of date and not fit for purpose. If we are to keep citizens safe, the Government must take firmer action now.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:42 pm, 9th May 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Sir David, with your vast experience of this place. I congratulate Carolyn Harris on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House for their thoughtful input. The hon. Lady is a true champion for her constituency, as I know from my work on the private Member’s Bill in relation to parental bereavement. She has made a huge contribution to the lives of people across our country, and I commend her not only for the work that she does, but for the way in which she does it.

Let me be clear that there is no doubt about the Government’s commitment to maintaining the highest level of consumer protection. I have a wide and varied brief. As the Minister responsible for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, I cover postal issues, competition policy and retail. I lose track of the number of things that should be on my business card, but it would not fit in my pocket if it had everything on. I reassure the Chamber that consumer protection is of the utmost importance, however, and if anything keeps me awake at night, it is ensuring that this country has a product safety regime that keeps us all safe. The Government’s commitment led to the first ever national technical expertise to support local authority trading standards teams in their vital work of enforcing product safety.

There were some questions about the announcement in relation to the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I put my hands up; it was my first week as a Minister. I thought it was better to get the information into the public arena and for people to be aware of it. If there are suggestions that I should have come to the House or done it differently, I take them on board. We are always learning.

I announced the establishment of the Office for Product Safety and Standards on 21 January. That announcement responded to the central recommendation made by the working group on product recalls and safety. That group was set up by the Government to advise on the practical steps that could be taken to enhance the UK’s approach to product safety. It identified a need for a national technical and scientific resource to support decision making in local authorities and in the businesses they regulate. We will deliver that national capability through the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I have high ambitions for what the office will be able to achieve, and I am determined that the capability will be established quickly.

Since establishing the office, we have taken steps to deliver improvements, which I will say more about shortly, but it might be helpful to remind hon. Members where the responsibilities within the product safety regime lie, so we are clear about exactly where we should expect the office to deliver improvements. It has not been set up to do what others are already doing or should be doing.

Businesses are legally responsible for ensuring that the products they place on the market are safe, and for taking effective action to address any issues that arise once those products are in circulation. The Office for Product Safety and Standards does not take those responsibilities away from businesses, nor does it lessen them in any way. It gives us the scope to better enforce those requirements more consistently across the country.

Day-to-day enforcement of product safety is led by local authorities, which have teams of officers on the ground across the country, as we have heard. In that role, they provide vital services, such as being a point of contact, giving advice to consumers and businesses, and leading on investigations into potential non-compliance. I pay tribute to the work that trading standards officers do across the country. The establishment of the office does not move, alter or reduce that role. Local authorities remain front and centre in the delivery of effective protections.

The office will provide additional support for those local teams, who will be able to draw on the national testing facilities, leading scientific advice and technical expertise to help them to deal with the complexity of the issues they encounter. We have heard about the challenges in relation to resource, but this is a new, additional resource of additional expertise to help and support those trading standards officers across the country.

To clarify, the new office will have a budget for new product safety activities of an additional £12 million a year. As I said earlier, the budget for the first year in operation, 2018-19, is about £25 million, which includes £9 million of additional funding. In the following year, that £9 million will increase to £12 million. Those are substantial amounts of resources. The office will employ about 290 people, of whom 180 will be existing staff and 110 will be new posts. I hope that reassures right hon. and hon. Members.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling

Will the new office that the Minister is describing in great detail have the power to hold to the fire the feet of big organisations, such as Whirlpool, in favour of consumers?

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I absolutely reassure my hon. Friend. I think he won the prize for the best pun today when he talked about the spin cycle of those large companies. I noticed it, if nobody else did, and laughed internally. Clearly, the office has to have the teeth and the capabilities to hold those businesses to account. I reassure him that it will.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I think the Minister has said that one of the office’s duties will be to maintain a recall register. How is that progressing, and will manufacturers be under an obligation to ensure that the register is notified of all recalls?

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I confirm that there is an obligation in place for manufacturers to notify the Office for Product Safety and Standards. I will come on to how the database will work further on in my speech.[This section has been corrected on 15 May 2018, column 2MC — read correction]

Within the office, we are applying lessons from regulators such as the Food Standards Agency, which is a national regulator that deals with significant volumes of product incidents and provides national scientific expertise to local authorities. So we are not creating something new; we are learning the lessons from previous regulators to ensure that the office works properly. We are also applying the lessons learned from international comparators—the OECD and American counterparts—and we are in the process of building national capacity.

Through the OPSS, the Government have already led the development of a code of practice for product recalls and corrective actions, working with the British Standards Institution. The code provides greater clarity for businesses on what they should do in such cases. It also provides a framework for local authorities when they engage with businesses to support and enforce programmes of corrective action.

There was a question about how the OPSS will support trading standards officers. I can confirm that so far, more than 250 local authority officers have received training on the new code and as a result they are now better equipped to deal with incidents.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Steel, Postal Affairs and Consumer Protection)

Although the Minister said earlier that there are 290 posts at the OPSS, it looks as though there is little resource in terms of extra staffing or extra funding for local trading standards officers. Is that correct?

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

To clarify, as I said before, there are 110 new posts at the OPSS, with an additional resource of £12 million; I think that is a substantial amount of money. The Government are properly resourcing what we accept is a vital facility.

As we build the office over the coming year, the Government will continue to consult on aspects of its functions and on its long-term scope. I think there has been some question about whether it should remain in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or be an independent body. We will consult on that and on the case for changes to its legal powers.

The hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned the work of the all-party parliamentary group on home electrical safety, and I commend that work. I have read a number of the reports and documents that it has produced, and they were helpful to me. I also pay tribute to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and to Rachel Reeves for the work that she has done. That work demonstrates the desire to work across parties and to ensure that we get this matter right for all our constituents.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Flooding and Coastal Communities)

In the spirit of cross-party working, the Minister might remember that on 29 January he responded to a Westminster Hall debate on a petition calling for greater regulation on the sale of fireworks. In response to an inquiry from my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, he said that, regarding the sale and regulation of fireworks, “this new body” would

“—where necessary—come forward with suggestions and advice to Government.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2018;
Vol. 635, c. 261WH.]

He also committed to arranging a meeting with all those Members who were interested in the regulation and sale of fireworks. Has there been any progress on that particular issue?

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She has reminded Jim Fitzpatrick, who said that this debate was the first time that he had heard me speak as the Minister, that this is actually the second time that he has done so; that was a very useful debate. My understanding—I look to my right, at my officials—is that officials were in the process of setting up that meeting. If they have not done so, I will chase that up; it should take place, because it is an important meeting and I want it to happen.

The hon. Member for Swansea East asked what the OPSS was doing to discuss electrical fire safety with the Home Office; that is important. The OPSS is building up its intelligence-gathering capability and will use a database and evidence to help to identify and prioritise products that pose higher safety risks to consumers. The OPSS is also represented on the Home Office’s fire statistics users group and we are in regular—almost daily—contact across Government to ensure that these activities are properly joined up.

The hon. Lady also specifically mentioned online selling, which is very important. Action is being taken by law enforcement agencies against the sale of counterfeit goods at local markets and car boot sales, through social media channels such as Facebook and facilitated by fulfilment houses.

The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of Amazon giving evidence to her all-party parliamentary group. I put on the record that I understand the point she made, and I agree with her that it would be valuable for the APPG to engage constructively with Amazon. I am sure that others outside this place have heard her comment and will respond to her in the near future; she should let me know if they do not.

Existing legislation applies to online retailers and they have a responsibility for the products they sell. As we have heard, the Intellectual Property Office works closely with Electrical Safety First; I commend the work that that charity does to highlight how to identify fake electrical goods that are being sold online.

One of the reasons for creating the OPSS is to enable the UK to meet the evolving challenges of product safety by responding to the increasing rate of product innovation, the growth of online shopping and trading portals, and expanding international trade.

I was asked whether private sales—consumer to consumer, on websites such as eBay—are regulated. Consumer-to-consumer sales are not covered by the Consumer Rights Act, other than in relation to things such as secondary ticketing. However, as we have heard today, there is a current consultation—a Green Paper—that I have launched, which specifically asks whether more protection is needed in this area. If the hon. Lady would like to contribute to that consultation, I would certainly be interested in hearing her views.

Over the past three years, National Trading Standards has had a core budget of £40 million to work with local authorities to tackle harm in this area. There was also a question in relation to the injury database. The injury database was scrapped in 2002, and at present there are no plans to reinstate it. However, the OPSS is considering how to ensure that it has access to the best information, and we always keep abreast of these things and will consider the future as we go forward.

My hon. Friend Stephen Kerr raised the issue of regulators and their powers. The White Paper specifically asks whether regulators need more powers, so he might want to have a look at it.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse asked whether businesses will be required to notify the OPSS; I think that I have already confirmed to him that they will absolutely be required to do so.

Then there is the issue of selling second-hand goods subject to recall. Under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005, there is a requirement for sellers of second-hand goods not to sell goods that they know are unsafe.

I was asked what will happen on our exit from the EU. Of course, unsafe products will remain a serious risk. UK enforcement authorities are currently reliant on EU systems, such as Rapex, as the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned. However, BEIS is developing new systems to enable regulators to identify new threats quickly, to mount co-ordinated and rapid responses, and to target and intercept products, including imports.

Emma Hardy raised the issue of boots. I can tell her that safety boots are regulated under the personal protective equipment regulations. Manufacturers have a legal obligation to ensure that they are safe, and trading standards officers have the powers to act if necessary. If the hon. Lady provides me with the details, I will ask the OPSS to work with trading standards officers to look into the case for her.

What else have we had? I think that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has pointed out that we intend to undertake a further upgrade of the Government’s product recall website; that issue was raised earlier. We recognise that this website is important and we will put extra work into it. I hope that reassures Tulip Siddiq. She mentions that mums are concerned about bottle warmers and baby seats. I would say that it is not only mums who are concerned; as a new dad myself, I know that dads are also concerned. I can correct her by saying that they are no longer called baby seats; I think they are now called travel systems. That was news to me, but we are always learning as we go, are we not?

Jim Shannon made some very important points. I commend him on the fact that he has spoken in some 379 debates in the last year. If only our products were as reliable as he is, we would not need this new office. However, I point out to him that currently the number of questions that he has asked stands at 666, so he might want to ask another question shortly.

Patricia Gibson mentioned Which? I think we all recognise the important role that Which? plays in consumer protection. I can confirm to her that I am meeting its managing director next week and I can also confirm that the OPSS is working closely with Which? in a number of areas and has had regular meetings with it. I hope that reassures her.

I was also asked about the Grenfell fridge. Clearly, that issue is a priority. A thorough safety investigation has taken place and I hope to be able to come forward with information for the House in the very near future.

In closing, I reassure the House that this Government take the issue of product safety incredibly seriously. We have to get this matter right for all of our constituents. As the Minister responsible, I confirm that the Department and the new OPSS will continue to engage with parliamentarians to ensure that we get it right. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the role of the Office for Product Safety and Standards.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.